Ah, anything Walt Whitman brings a smile to my heart. I can thank more than one person for that.
My parents and grandparents talked to me. Seems simple, but they truly gave me my first words. (They will tell you, as would anyone that knows me, that I have a lot of words!) My parents put books into my hands consistently and constantly. I realize just how lucky I am to have grown up in a world where words and books were loved and respected. Over the years I visited many libraries. Mrs. Haycock, Triton Central High School librarian, put books, MANY books, into my hands when my brain wanted more, more, more. She is responsible for my unending love of Rebecca, but also gave me Death Be Not Proud and historical fiction.
Then came Ball State. I remember many days and nights of reading and writing-comfy leather chairs in the library and learning in the Teacher’s College and the Bell building.
While none of my professors literally pulled a John Keating and jumped to his or her desk to proclaim the joy, or sorrow, of teaching and learning, I would say there were a few that did so metaphorically: some insistently, some through simple prodding, one because she did the exact opposite of what she taught. (“Do as I say. Not as I do.”)
Dr. Richard Whitworth, English methods professor, wrote a letter of recommendation for my BSU Career Center file. In it he notes that I was “fairly regular in my attendance.” I have always loved this reference letter. He is so succinct. So truly, brutally honest in simply stating the facts that when he says he has found me to be “very personable, cooperative and well prepared,” I am thrilled. Still. Today. More than twenty-five years later. And yes. I have a copy of the letter.
Dr. Whitworth taught the power of words.
He taught that we must think and use our words, and our actions, with great precision and care. If Dr. Whitworth wrote it, it must be true.
I am sure we learned much beyond what I can attribute to that class and my professor. But isn’t that always the way? As teachers we know that our words, our actions, will likely outlive our students’ memories of where the thoughts were first planted. And that is okay. Whitman’s poem acknowledges a fallen hero who captained a ship that still sails despite the loss of its leader and begs the captain to rise and see the ship riding the very waves he helped fight. Mourns the loss, but also celebrates the victory. Luckily, as teachers of English we do not have to fall to push our students out toward the horizon to set their own sails. Our purpose is to help them sail, fair or foul seas.
Dr. Whitworth taught the content, but what I really remember about his class was he taught us to think, not to judge. He taught a love of words, but he also taught that words belong to the people, all people. He taught me that we should respect our students and their words- where they and their words came from and would take them. It was in his class that I truly came to understand and respect that there is a time and place for formal English but also for informal language; language is a living thing. It changes. It evolves. It fits our purpose if we know it well enough to command it as we will.
Dr. Whitworth taught us to be wary of being too quick to judge our students, and their backgrounds, based on their use of informal language. Instead he proposed that teachers should use students’ vernacular to help them understand and learn that words are powerful, and as such should be used with thought and care. Today we reference that as author’s purpose, word choice, style.
My American Fiction professor made us swear with our hands on the book that as English majors we would one day read- swallow whole and completely- Moby Dick. My Old English prof had the patience of Job. He got us through challenging texts and allowed one student to bring her child to every single class. I took a summer class (maybe Shakespeare?) in which I hung out with grad students talking about the old bard and many other things besides- I don’t remember what I learned, but the feeling of being there and the joy I found in books, writers, and talking about them remains…but it is Dr. Whitworth whose face I see most clearly.
“O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;”
I am not sure how long after each class went through he remembered specific students. I am okay with that. Happy actually, as I don’t feel so guilty for not being able to remember each student and when I had them. But I know that I, like Dr. Whitworth, put my all into my teaching day by day, student by student. I am present in the moment and use my thoughts, my words, my actions, most carefully. I remember Dr. Richard Whitworth as pretty stern, but I also remember he smiled. I remember not word for word what he taught but that he taught me to think for myself. He gave me power. He wrote, “I believe that Kelly has considerable growth potential.” He continues to inspire me to be all that I can strive to be. I can not think of a better tribute to my professor than to write that I too believe I have considerable growth potential and believe that my students benefit every day from what he gave me in my time in his classroom at Ball State University.